Clinton, Sanders battle on auto bailout, Flint’s crisis

Chad Livengood, Leonard N. Fleming, and Jonathan Oosting

Flint — Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton said Sunday that rival Bernie Sanders’ “one issue” opposition to Wall Street banks caused him to vote against the funding source of the 2009 auto bailout credited with averting an economic depression in Michigan.

Appearing on a debate stage in Flint, the birthplace of General Motors, Clinton said Sanders’ opposition to the Troubled Asset Relief Program to aid banks during the financial crisis also was a vote against the eventual funding source of the taxpayer rescue of GM and Chrysler.

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“I voted to save the auto industry. He voted against the money that ended up saving auto industry,” said Clinton, a former U.S. senator from New York.

Sanders, an independent Vermont senator, appeared caught off guard by Clinton using his vote against TARP to portray him as an opponent of the auto bailout. He publicly supported the auto bailout bill at the time but rejected the $700 billion TARP in an October 2008 vote.

But the self-declared democratic socialist attempted to turn the issue back to his larger campaign argument that Clinton is friendly with powerful Wall Street banks.

“You know what I said? I said ‘Let the billionaires themselves bail out Wall Street. It shouldn’t be the middle class of this country,’” Sanders said. “… I stood up to corporate America time and time again.”

The auto bailout exchange happened after the lead contamination of the drinking water of Flint — site of the debate — led Clinton to call for the first time for the recall, or resignation, of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder at the beginning of the debate.

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Sanders was the first national Democratic leader in mid-January to call for Snyder to resign because of his administration’s role in the contamination of Flint’s drinking water system. He renewed his demand for Snyder to resign in his opening statement at the seventh Democratic presidential debate at Flint’s Whiting auditorium.

“I agree,” Clinton said. “The governor should resign or be recalled.”

The Democratic National Committee held the debate in Flint to highlight the city's lead-contaminated water crisis. But economic policy proved to be fault line of the debate, as Clinton and Sanders sparred over how past and present policies have changed the fortunes for Rust Belt cities like Flint.

During the testy exchange over the auto bailout, Clinton called Sanders a “one-issue candidate” for voting against the release of $350 billion in Jan. 15, 2009, to continue funding the bailout of the nation’s banks and mortgage lenders.

Sanders joined seven Democratic senators in voting against the second wave of

TARP funds. President Barack Obama ended up using some of TARP to fund the $85 billion rescue of GM, Chrysler and their auto lending arms.

“If everybody had voted the way he did, I believe the auto industry would have collapsed, taking 4 million jobs with it,” Clinton said.

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Sanders said he had an amendment to the TARP bill to only fund the auto bailout.
"In terms of the auto bailout, of course that made sense," Sanders said.

But Sanders did not shun Clinton’s label that he’s too focused on a single issue in the White House campaign.

“My one issue is trying to rebuild a disappearing middle class,” Sanders said to applause. “That’s my one issue.”

David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama, questioned Clinton’s attack on Sanders’ voting record in the middle of the debate.

“It wasn’t explicitly a vote about saving auto industry,” Axelrod wrote on Twitter.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Clinton supporter, said after the debate that senators, including Sanders, were aware the TARP money would be used to aid the domestic auto industry.

“A lot of folks said we shouldn’t do it because somehow it was helping the banks,” said Stabenow, D-Lansing. “It was the auto bailout we were talking about. I was very clear with colleagues that we had to do this.”

After Clinton sprung the TARP vote on him, Sanders went after Clinton’s past support of international trade deals, which he’s been highlighting in speeches and media interviews in the run-up to Tuesday’s Michigan primary election.

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“I am very glad, Anderson, that Secretary Clinton has discovered religion on this issue,” Sanders told CNN moderator Anderson Cooper. “But it’s a little bit too late. Secretary Clinton supports virtually every one of these disastrous trade agreements, written by corporate America.”

Sanders has sought to lay responsibility for job losses attributed to the 22-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement at Clinton’s feet because her husband, former President Bill Clinton, promoted and signed the continental trade treaty.

“I understood that these trade agreements were going to destroy the middle class of this country,” Sanders said.

Sanders also took aim at the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Clinton initially supported as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state and then opposed as her presidential campaign began.

“I came out against the TPP after it was finished,” Clinton said. “I thought it was reasonable to actually know what was in it before I opposed it.”

Clinton also noted she voted the Central America Free Trade Agreement when she was in the Senate.

Sanders’ campaign argument about Clinton’s support for trade deals got a boost just an hour before the debate when former U.S. Sen. Don Riegle Jr. of Flint endorsed him.

Riegle described how both he and Sanders voted against NAFTA after withstanding “intense pressure” from the Clinton administration.

“We knew it would have a devastating economic effect, destroying U.S. jobs, having a crushing impact right here in Flint and many other communities in Michigan,” said Riegle, 78.

Riegle, who entered Congress as a Republican but switched to the Democratic Party in 1973, suggested “the Clintons as a team have to be held accountable” for decisions made when Bill Clinton was president.

“The Clintons rammed NAFTA down the throats of the American people with false promises, and you can go back and read what they said at the time,” he said.

In seeking to define Sanders on economic issues, Clinton also criticized his votes against the Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that loans companies money to help export American-made products. Clinton said 176 small businesses in Michigan have benefited from the loans.

"I favor that, he's opposed it," Clinton said. "I want to do everything I can for us to compete and win in the global economy."

Sanders said the Export-Import Bank is a vehicle for "corporate welfare." In Washington, Sanders said, the agency is known as "the bank of Boeing because Boeing itself gets 40 percent of the money discharged by the Export-Import Bank."

"I don't think it's a great idea for the American taxpayer to have to subsidize through corporate welfare profitable corporations who downsize in the United States of America," Sanders said.

Sanders has been trailing Clinton by double digits in most public opinion polls of likely Michigan Democratic voters ahead of Tuesday’s primary.

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